Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A Minor

September COMPOSER: pytor tchaikovsky

Pytor Tchaikovsky

Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50, 1882

All of Tchaikovsky’s lyrical talents are on display in Piano Trio in A minor. A deeply emotive work, it remains a unique piece of chamber music that literally set the score for Russian composers for years to come. He dedicated it, ‘ in memory of a great artist’, to his close friend and champion Nikolai Rubinstein who had died the previous year. Rubinstein’s appointment of Tchaikovsky to a professorship at the Conservatory of Moscow was as instrumental to his career as this piece became to those Russian composers who came after him.

Watch Spiegel Trio play

At 45 minutes (which is long for a trio) Piano Trio in A minor is the only piece Tchaikovsky wrote for the combination of piano, cello, violin. It has 2 official movements –Pezzo elegiaco (Elegiac Piece – an elegy is a piece written as a memorial) which begins with a searing cello solo before sweeping and diving around the central theme, and a 2nd movement which had 2 sections (and is made up of 11 different variations of a theme) which twist and turn around each other from great highs to desperate lows and finally resolve into a sombre funeral march.

drawing of fim projectorThis piece is a whole lifetime. Imagine a super 8 film, a series of flickering static images being projected onto a blank screen. In the first one a boy not long grown into a man, the heavy awkwardness of adolescence still weighed on his shoulders, the hint of the trauma of separation from his mother still visible in the whites of his eyes. The film flits through a series of other static images and we see the man change: two friends laughing, playing the piano, walking in the park, listening to a performance, or smoking dressed in rich velvet waistcoats with sly grins on their faces.

Portrait Nikolai Rubinstein


The two men grow older and the images are less frivolous but no less intense: one plays the piano – the other stands nearby watching intently, one offers the other hope, the other takes it gladly. And so it continues until the last slide where the boy from the beginning, now grown grey and old, the weight of the world weighing down his shoulders is alone behind a coffin being walked to its final resting place.


There is a great deal written about Tchaikovsky’s personal life. From his grief over his early separation from his mother when he went to boarding school and then her subsequent death, to his homosexuality, to his disastrous and brief marriage and finally to his death (some say cholera some say suicide). He doesn’t seem to have been a man who was spared difficulties, but then if you dig into most of our lives, not many of us are. All of these things would have had a great impact on not only his approach to his music but what got poured into those compositions.


I’m sure that in the writing such a lengthy elegy-style piece he was able to channel all of that built-up grief into music —grief not only about the loss of his close friend, but the loss of many other parts of his life. It feels to me that if he could have written an elegy for his own life, then in many way this would have been his. Virtuosic, lyrical and raw.


*images in order of appearance courtesy of public domain, public domain, Christoph T via CC, public domain


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